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Should DR Congo turn its back on Tintin?

posted 20 Sept 2012, 07:25 by Mpelembe   [ updated 20 Sept 2012, 07:26 ]

With Kinshasa bracing itself for a flood of outsiders for an international summit, some are questioning whether issues of race mean the Democratic Republic of Congo should turn its back on popular comic character Tintin, who has a longstanding association with the country.

KINSHASA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (SEPTEMBER 19, 2012) (REUTERS) - Fans of Tintin would feel surprisingly at home in the small wooden shed in a backstreet of Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, where the shelves are crammed with hundreds of statues and figures from the famous Belgian cartoon character's adventures.

Friendly faces are everywhere - Tintin himself, the bearded Captain Haddock, even the bumbling Thomson twins - all carved lovingly from wood, then carefully painted in bold colours.

But with Kinshasa bracing itself for a rare flood of outsiders for an international summit, some are questioning whether issues of race and colonialism mean Congo should turn its back on the boy reporter and his little white dog.

Tintin's relationship with Congo dates back to 1930, when his creator Herge wrote 'Tintin in Congo', depicting his adventures in the then Belgian colony, tackling wild animals, hunters, diamond smugglers and warlike local chieftains.

The book has sparked a long-lasting relationship between the cartoon and the country.

The statues - which can sell for anything from $15 to $1500 - are part of Congo's roaring trade in Tintin memorabilia, a trade that could receive a boost next month as delegates from 56 countries across the French-speaking world gather in Kinshasa for the summit of the Francophonie.

Tourists can find stalls and street vendors across the capital selling the figures, and can even buy personalised paintings of the 'Tintin in Congo' front cover, with their names expertly added by the artist.

But it is Herge's heavily stereotyped depiction of Africans - fat lipped, dull witted and childish - that makes Tintin an unacceptable cultural icon for a country trying to turn its back on a brutal colonial past followed by decades of dictatorship and conflict, according to professor Joseph Ibongo Gilungule, the director of Congo's national museum.

"Tintin is an image created by westerners, and it proves the ignorance of these people, a lack of understanding for our values," Ibongo told Reuters.

Ibongo wants more people to celebrate the rich cultures of the estimated 250 ethnic groups that exist within the country's borders.

His museum is a celebration of the masks, head dresses and cloth that have played an integral part in Congo's traditional values, but few of the countries 70 million inhabitants come to visit the museum, and power cuts mean curators are sometimes forced to show off the exhibits by torchlight.

Ibongo is not against preserving relics of Congo's colonial past - he is trying to find money to rehabilitate the statue controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley which lies forlornly toppled behind a shed at the museum.

Nonetheless, with so many people due to visit the country for the Francophonie, he believes Congo should find a better posterboy than Tintin.

"There are other strong images which speak positively of this country, its peoples... It would be more respectful to Congo and the whole of Africa if we spoke of images that honour the Congo, and not Tintin," Ibongo added.

Ibongo is not alone in finding 'Tintin in Congo' offensive.

Earlier this year a Congolese studying in Belgium tried and failed to have the book banned on the grounds of racism, whilst in Britain, some bookstores have banished it to the top shelves, where only adults can see it.

Even Tintin's creator Herge later rewrote parts of the story, toning down the more extreme stereotypes which sprang from Belgium's colonisation of Congo, which was brutal even by the standards of the day.

But whilst artist Auguy Kakese acknowledges that it was Europeans who first suggested he carve Tintin figures and most of his clients remain westerners, he sees no harm in it.

"It's humour, it's not racist... for those who say it's racist I say that in the comic strip, you never see images which show him trying to kill the Congolese," Kakese said in his workshop, which employs ten people and produces thousands of Tintin statues.

Although most of the statues Kakese sells are of the books' European characters, he does not shy away from depicting the Africans as well, despite them seeming uncomfortably stereotyped for modern tastes.

"We were a Belgian colony, if we work with Tintin now it's to say that the Belgians are still our brothers," he added.

A showing of the new Tintin movie in Kinshasa attracts a small but varied audience, everyone from Congolese to Koreans, and although all of them are aware of the cartoon's sometimes complex relations with Congo, no one sees it as a huge problem.

''I don't see the conflict, the colonial dimension and so on ... maybe some European elites can have this feeling about a difficult memory to handle, but generally speaking the Congolese like Tintin and Tintin is a character that make Congo better known and it is a good thing,'' said local resident Fabien Pruedhomme